What NOT to order when you go to a fast food restaurant.

With the recent spate of news reports implicating Norovirus as the source of diarrhea outbreaks at a national fast food chain, I thought I’d weigh in with some facts about this nasty bug.


What is Norovirus?


Norovirus is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States. Each year, it causes 19-21 million illnesses and contributes to 56,000-71,000 hospitalizations and 570-800 deaths. Norovirus is also the most common cause of foodborne-disease outbreaks in the United States. The virus causes your stomach or intestines or both to get inflamed (acute gastroenteritis). This leads you to have stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea and to throw up.



How do you contract it?


Norovirus is a very contagious virus. You can get Norovirus from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces.

Anyone can be infected with norovirus and get sick. Also, you can have Norovirus illness many times in your life. Norovirus illness can be serious, especially for young children and older adults.



How long does it usually last?


Incubation periods are short, so you can be perfectly fine one day, and have severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhea with belly cramping the next. Low grade fever, muscle aches, fatigue, chills and headache can also be part of the symptoms. Of course, the biggest concern with Norovirus is dehydration from excessive fluid and electrolyte losses. In healthy individuals Norovirus runs its course in 2-3 days.


Both the very young, the elderly, and any person with chronic health issues are especially vulnerable to more complications.



Other ways to alleviate discomfort?


Treatment is symptomatic for Norovirus and the majority of other intestinal viruses, as there is no antibiotic for this virus, nor is there currently a vaccine (except for Rotavirus – this vaccine is given to babies in the first 6 months of life). Drinking plenty of fluids (for adults electrolyte drinks, water, and juices and for kids oral rehydration solutions (like Pedialyte) is key to keeping hydrated. Avoidance of sugary drinks and those with caffeine (which can cause even more dehydration) is advised. Once vomiting stops, it’s key to begin to restore calories to assist the healing process, so eating simple, easy to digest foods such as rice, pasta, eggs, chicken, soups, bread, bananas and applesauce will give your body some fuel to fight and heal. Taking probiotics may shorten the course of the diarrhea.



What are some preventative measures families should be taking on a day-to-day? 


  • Wash hands vigorously for 20-30 seconds with soap and water before eating or snacking
  • If hand sanitizer or wipes are used on the road, then 15 seconds of vigorous application can discourage Noroviruses from hitch hiking on hands
  • Wash raw foods and veggies thoroughly (even if pre-washed and bagged for convenience)
  • Cook shellfish thoroughly before eating – if any shells don’t open with cooking, dispose of those
  • If a family member is ill, clean and disinfect surfaces they touch with bleach wipes or a mixture of 1 cup of bleach per 1 gallon of soapy water. Bag up contaminated diapers or towels and wash your hands after
  • Don’t prepare food for your family for at least 2-3 days after YOU have been sick, to reduce chances of contagion, and don’t eat food prepared by someone who is currently sick.
  • Wash soiled clothing and bed linens in hot water for the maximum time your washer offers, wear gloves when handling, and don’t shake out the clothes (the viruses can pole vault onto new surfaces). Machine dry infected linens.
  • Try to avoid reaching into common food bowls at parties and gatherings – instead, if you are the host, hand out single serving packages to the kids – and avoid sampling food at big box stores during the winter – you don’t know who has touched or sneezed on that food before you



Is Norovirus seasonal?


Although winter is the time this bad bug flourishes, the truth is that Noroviruses can cause illness year-round. So it’s especially important to keep all these preventive strategies in the back of your mind in the event this bug comes knocking at your door!



What are some indicators that it’s time to see a doctor?


If affected individuals are dizzy, if urination has dwindled or stopped, or the mouth feels puckered and dry, it’s time to hydrate more aggressively, and if still vomiting or having lots of diarrhea, best to go to the emergency room or your doctor for hydration. In babies and tots, lack of tears, listlessness (not wanting to play, inactivity out of character), pale cool skin, dry mouth, and persistent symptoms should trigger an immediate call to your health care provider or a visit (pronto!) to the ER.